Sunday, April 05, 2009

Computers for the Developementally Disabled

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday at the laundromat with a man who was fascinated with my laptop. He said that he wanted one, but he was officially considered "retarded" and never learned to read or do arithmetic, so he was afraid he wouldn't be able to use it.

As I was speaking with him I saw no signs that he was any different from the average Joe on the street. In my opinion, he is one of the unfortunate people who went through the American public school system before the discovery of "learning disabilities," and was relegated to learning how to work as a janitor or helping out in the cafeteria.

I began Googling relevant search terms hoping to find a Windows application or Window Manager, or perhaps a custom-tailored distribution of Linux that was meant for the functionally illiterate, the developementally disabled, or the mentally handicapped. What did I find? Nothing! OK, there were a few studies looking at how computing environments could be tailored for those with special needs, but nothing had come of them.

It was similar to a situation I ran into a few years ago when I was looking into available technologies for assisting a quadriplegic gentleman use his computer - but in his case there were a few available resources, but they were difficult to find, and once found were prohibitively expensive.

Why make expensive computer software and hardware for the handicapped? The fact is that most of America's handicapped live on public aid and have little to no disposable income. In the case of quadriplegics several universities and corporations have devoted resources to creating assistive technologies to enable them to use a computer - provided they can at least see and read or be read to by the assistive technologies for the blind.

But a more-or-less fully functioning adult with few financial resources and a reading disability? Are computing technologies for the blind appropriate? What free resources are available to the blind that might help an illiterate person use a computer? Hold on there, Mr. I'm So Smart - the illiterate need to learn to read first then they can use the computer? Perhaps they're dyslexic or have a severe learning disability and reading is out of the question.

I think that this has not been thoroughly explored because there is simply no money in it. It's enough to make me wish I was a man of means - I would establish a foundation for assistive technologies for those who are simply unable to read.

UPDATE 7-Jan-11  An administrator at a nursing home brought IN2L (It's Never 2 Late) to my attention - they specialize in computers for the elderly, particularly in a clinical setting - this is going the right direction!  I understand that it is a relatively expensive offering when considered for individuals, but this would certainly be beneficial in a community setting.

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